Actually, we spent four days talking about how to teach using historically-embedded live-action role-playing games in history (and other) courses, mostly by practicing playing the games ourselves. This time, I played one game based on the Trial of Galileo (17C Italy) and another based on the Industrial Revolution (19C England).
In the first game, I was Christoph Grienberger, an Austrian Jesuit mathematician in the College of Rome. I played Vatican politics so that I was elected Pope (the first Jewish guy to do so since St. Peter!) and tried to protect Galileo, but the conservatives were unhappy and elected an antipope! In the second game, I was Viscount Melbourne, the aristocratic magistrate of Manchester in 1817-18. I tried to keep the peace between workers and merchants, all the while investing in the newfangled industrial factories. I made a pile of money and ended up with a fine country estate and a splendid house in the city as well. I had to “read the Riot Act” to the disgruntled workers and sentence one troublemaker to be banished to Australia.
For over 20 years, Reacting to the Past has used these games to teach history, critical thinking, and communications skills in classrooms in over 500 colleges across the country. The group now deploys more than 25 published games (including instructor’s manuals, student gamebooks, and individual character roles), and has over 100 games in development addressing situations from pre-history to the 21st century and engaging students with primary sources from dozens of cultures. Through structured debates and the motivating elements of collaboration and competition, students teach themselves and one another about conflicting ideas and motivations from political, social, strategic, and cultural inflection points in history. Check it out here.
It's not “re-enacting,” i.e., replicating history. Students are not obligated to do what “actually happened” in history. Sometimes, Socrates is not convicted by the Athenians. I’ve had Constitutional Conventions where they couldn’t agree on a document and the US stayed under the Articles of Confederation. Sometimes, slavery is abolished; sometimes not. Sometimes, World War I starts “on schedule,” sometimes peace is maintained. Students get to see that individuals matter and if they don’t speak or vote, their side will more likely lose.
I’ve been part of this group since 2017 when I stumbled across some of the game books at a publisher’s table at a regular historians’ conference. I was looking for some way to get my students more engaged in their own learning. What I found was a remarkable community of teachers and a way to combine fun with history. I’ve been to a bunch of conferences since and was glad when we re-emerged from COVID to gather again this past week. It was the first time I’ve been in a room with dozens of historians in over two years (oh, we also have teachers of philosophy, politics, economics, communications, rhetoric, literature, etc.).
I use several games regularly in my courses: Athens 403BC and South Africa 1993 feature in my freshman seminar on the history of democracy; Philadelphia 1787 is the focus of my course on US Constitutional history (along with a short game on the 13th Amendment); a game on the diplomatic crisis leading up to WWI was the culmination of my 19C International History course. I have also run games on the English Glorious Revolution in 1689, the French Revolution in 1789, Kentucky’s decision on secession in 1861, as well as some short introductory games.
I really love using this way of teaching (and it is not (obviously) because I don’t like to give lectures)). Student’s (most of them at least) read primary sources and argue about the issues of the day. They have to figure out practical politics of teams and factions, negotiate deals, based on the beliefs and the goals that their characters actually had. I sit in the back and watch, guide, and grade. My workload is actually about the same as a “regular” class, but what I do is different. I’m more of a coach to their learning than the font of wisdom and knowledge which is the usual stance of university professors. More importantly, students come away with a deeper knowledge of some segments of history as compared with whatever they might retain (usually not too much) from lectures, especially in terms of the context and mentality of the time and place we’re studying. They have fun and they learn more (not a coincidence).
As for me, I get to work with authors of the games I am playing and trade tips and ideas with others who are running games. As a recovering lawyer/business guy, I’ve also been able to help the organization improve its structure, management, and strategy.
Overall, Reacting has been great for me as a teacher and as a colleague. Based on many of their comments, it’s been terrific for my students too!